The invisible child soldiers

In DR Congo, 30 to 40 percent of the child soldiers are girls. They experience more sexual abuse and stigmatization and they receive less help than the boy soldiers. In spite of this, the girls get far less attention from the international community.
This girl, who was kidnapped and forced to become a child soldier in DR Congo, is now the mother of a little boy and lives in Izege in South Kivu. She is one of the 17 girls Milfrid Tonheim interviewed for her research on girl soldiers. (Photo: Milfrid Tonheim)

A 12-year-old girl soldier is dispatched to a marketplace to spy. In the evening she must return to the armed camp she came from. Her assignment is to report on the conversations she overhears to the men who have kidnapped her. The ones who murdered her family. If she does not return, the soldiers will kill her girlfriends in the camp.

Kåre Lode. (Photo: Rannveig Svendby)

This is how historian and senior researcher Kåre Lode describes the situation of a Congolese girl soldier. Lode is the driving force behind a unique Norwegian-African research project on child soldiers at the Centre for Intercultural Communication (SIK). Usually child soldiers are depicted as small boys who carry big guns by researchers, the media and humanitarian organizations. Now for once the spotlight is on the girl soldiers, an alarmingly large group that is rarely discussed.

Kidnapped on the way to school

Social scientist Milfrid Tonheim heads up the research project at SIK. She interviewed 17 Congolese girls who had been child soldiers, and says that most are “recruited” to armed groups by being kidnapped.

“Many children are abducted along rural roads. Girls who live in areas where armed groups operate in the surrounding forests are especially vulnerable. The soldiers take the girls when they are on their way to the market, school or church. Or children are often taken when an armed group attacks a village and plunders it for objects, food and people. Both children and adults are used to carry the war spoils back to the armed camp. At the same time, they are a part of the war spoils. Some of them are shot when they arrive at the camp. Others are trained to be soldiers,” she explains.

Sex slaves and living shields

There is a perception among many local armed groups in DR Congo that children are purer and have more contact with the supernatural than adults. Because of this view, both girls and boys are preferred as bodyguards. They must defend and protect the commanders, and serve in practice as living shields. Child soldiers are also typically used as messengers, carriers, cooks and spies. To a certain extent, the assignments are gender specific. For instance, more boys than girls are used in armed conflict, and more girls than boys are used as sex slaves.

“The girls are often forced to be sexually available for all the men in the armed group. They are held captive and raped by both individuals and groups. The brutality of the assaults varies somewhat from group to group. Sometimes a few of the girls are selected to be a commander’s ‘wife’; then she often becomes one of several ‘wives’. It can be a strategic advantage for a girl to belong to one person in this way instead of being fair game. But when the so-called ‘husband’ is out on a raid, and especially if he is just a foot soldier, then anybody can rape her,” says Tonheim.

Escaping the camp

The children in the armed camp are the victims of a number of abuses that are supposed to prevent them from fleeing. For example, the girls Tonheim interviewed have been shot at or threatened with murder. Several of them saw escapees being tortured, sometimes to death. In spite of this, almost all of the informants escaped from the camp where they were held by running away.

“They show an amazing amount of courage and initiative! When there is suddenly chaos in the camp for one reason or another, like an armed fight, then the girls see their chance to escape. Or they have been in the camp so long that the guard becomes more relaxed than before. One day they are asked to fetch water and wood without the guard accompanying them, and then they run away,” explains the researcher.

No happy homecoming

Child soldiers who survive an escape and return home often find that their close relatives are fearful and angry towards them. One of the girls Tonheim spoke with described it like this:

“They said they didn’t know me any longer. [They said:] ‘What you have experienced there... A woman being with the Interahamwe doesn’t only live with one man but has several men...’ They said that if I came back to live with my family I could pass on this bad behaviour to other children in the family.”

“In the West we can easily think that this is a barbaric reaction on the part of the families. By the same token, it’s important to remember that this is a society which has lived with poverty, violence and armed conflict for many decades. It gets into people’s blood,” says Tonheim, and gives some insight into the prejudices of the local population about previous child soldiers:

“In general, they are seen as criminal, violent and disease ridden. There is a belief that if they have killed once, they will probably do it again, so people are afraid of them. Some are afraid that the girl soldiers are still a part of the armed group and have come to operate as spies. Others are afraid that the girls will attract soldiers who come to avenge the escape.”

The children of child soldiers

Compared with boy soldiers, girl soldiers often have to live with an additional challenge because many become pregnant by their rapists. It’s not unusual that the girls have a child in their womb or on their back when they escape from the armed camp, and this doesn’t go unnoticed when they return home.

“Even though the girls were taken by force, they are not given the status of victim by the local population. Many believe that they actually wanted to be together with the soldiers who kidnapped them. They are seen as accomplices in the rapes they were a victim of. Pregnancy and the baby are thus visible proof that the girls have behaved counter to the female ideal,” says Tonheim, who emphasizes that the girls and their children live under extreme conditions.

Milfred Tronheim. (Photo: Carina Johansen)

“The mothers I spoke with were worried that their children would eventually rebel against them and the community. They are at the bottom rung of the ladder and are openly insulted,” says the researcher.

Worst stigma for girls

The research project clearly shows that even though child soldiers of both genders are stigmatized, the girls are hit the hardest in terms of both expression and intensity. Tonheim attributes this finding to the traditional gender roles in Congolese society.

“Girls who are soldiers have crossed the gender divide. They are afraid to return to their families because they understand their own culture and know how they will be judged. They have taken part in war, an arena that traditionally belongs to men. They have been in an environment where they have both dressed and behaved in a way that is perceived as masculine,” says Tonheim, who describes the traditional view of girls in this way:

“A Congolese girl is brought up to be a good wife above all else. She is married away at a relatively young age, and she is not supposed to have sexual relations with men other than her husband. By virtue of marriage, she becomes part of the new family who pays a dowry to her parents. When previous girl soldiers return home, they’re often at an age when they should be married or are close to it. Instead they are seen as damaged goods. Their value as women is reduced considerably because they are not virgins, and the dowry declines correspondingly. If suitors come along who don’t know about their past, the rumours will soon scare them away. The girls end up as financial burdens on their families, and they are largely viewed as precisely this.”

Neglected and forgotten

In spite of their difficult situation, very few girls receive help.

“In DR Congo it's the men who are responsible for peace negotiations, demobilization and reintegration. The authorities are comprised of men at practically all levels, and it is mostly men who conduct research and have access to the media. This male dominance is one reason why the girl soldiers have been neglected,” says Tonheim, who believes that the treatment of girl soldiers is an abuse that the entire international community is responsible for. The research project has shown that the lack of attention has enormous ramifications for the girls who survive.

“Currently, boys who are demobilized receive a document releasing them from legal responsibility for all the criminal actions they committed when they were child soldiers. This is a crucial part of reintegration because the document paves the way for education, work and a chance to start anew. The problem for girls in the same situation is that they are not considered to be soldiers because of their gender. As a result, they don't get the papers and help they need to move on with their lives,” explains Lode.

Want to support themselves

Some programmes for reintegrating previous child soldiers have been developed, but Tonheim is critical of their content.

“In most of the programmes, a successful reintegration for a girl is synonymous with getting married. The girls in the target group have experienced one terrible abuse after another at the hands of men. In this case, it is totally wrong to present them with a plan which assumes that as long as they get a husband, everything will be alright,” she says.

During the interviews it became apparent that the girls were most concerned with becoming financially independent.

“They want help to learn a trade so they can provide for themselves and their children because they understand that independence is the key to a better life. They want to contribute to society in order to counteract all of the prejudices and to become attractive as women again by showing that they have their lives in order. Most of them could imagine getting married eventually, but not at any price, and not to just anybody. With an income in place they have a real opportunity to support themselves if their marriage ends in divorce, and this freedom is important to them,” says Tonheim, who was deeply touched by the girls’ courage.

“They have had a horrendous experience! First by being kidnapped and abused over and over again. Then by being rejected, excluded and harassed. On top of this, they are considered to be unworthy of receiving help. In spite of this, they don’t give up. Instead they work intensely to create a new future for themselves and their children. These girls have my greatest respect,” she concludes.

Translated by Connie Stultz


Milfrid Tonheim is a social scientist and researcher at the Centre for Intercultural Communication (SIK) in Stavanger. She is head of the research project Child soldiers, reintegration and civil society -  Models and experiences from East Congo, specially emphasizing reintegration of girls (2009-2012).

The project is a Norwegian-African collaboration between SIK, Univercité Officielle de Bukavu and Université Evangélique en Afrique. The initiator is Kåre Lode, a historian and senior researcher at SIK. The project is funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In February 2012, Milfrid Tonheim’s findings from the project were published in the article Who will comfort me? Stigmatization of girls formerly associated with armed forces and groups in eastern Congo (2012). More findings will be presented in a book coming out this year. The book will first be published in French.


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